Sermon: What Has God Cleansed?

An 1889 engraving of Emma Lazarus, author of "The New Colossus."

May 19, 2019
Fifth Sunday of Easter

Acts 11:1-18

by Eric Anderson

Not to oversell you, here, but this is one of the most important texts in the entire Bible. The story is so important the Luke, the gospel writer who also wrote the Acts of the Apostles, told it not once, not twice, but three times. He described Peter’s preview vision, then he described Peter’s actual visit to the house of Cornelius, and then, in the passage we just heard, he had Peter describe what he had seen and done to the gathered Church authorities in Jerusalem.

Luke didn’t want us to miss the point: in this encounter between Simon Peter and a Roman centurion, the world changed.

But let me start at the beginning, with the vision.

With the rest of this story in our minds, it’s hard to experience the vision as Peter did. I’m sure he realized it was important, as the voice declared three times that all the animals in this descending net (I always picture this as a cargo net) were now “clean,” or proper to eat.

We tend to think of ourselves as free of dietary laws, but we have as rigorous a system as the Jews of the first century did. Imagine, instead of a net full of animals, we have a net full of produce that hasn’t been inspected by the United States Department of Agriculture. Or, remembering the Mad Cow Disease proliferation of a few years ago, British beef. Or, perhaps something closer to home, a net filled with all the sugar-filled, diabetes-inducing sweets that we crave but won’t let ourselves eat because we know it’s bad for us.

That’s what God told Peter he could eat now. He must have been speechless with surprise.

By the time he was describing the vision to his fellow Church leaders in Jerusalem, however, he knew that the vision was about something greater than diet, greater than a relaxation of the daily practices that required so much time and effort of first century Jews. By the time he reported back to his peers in Jerusalem, he knew that the vision was more about people than about food.

Because the Holy Spirit had been seen at work in Gentiles, foreigners, people who sinned against God routinely (in ignorance, I grant you, but routinely) – nearly the last people on Earth where the Holy Spirit should be found.

I marvel that Peter found his tongue to say that they should be baptized. I marvel that Peter had the wisdom to say, “Who was I that I could hinder God?”

Who are we, any of us, to hinder God?

So who has God cleansed? Or better, who has God declared clean?

Karen Georgia Thompson writes, “These chapters are often received among us as ‘The Conversion of Cornelius and His Household.’ His entire household comes to know about Jesus. Their lives are transformed, they are converted to this new way of understanding Divine grace and presence by Peter. It is easy to see that these individuals hold a significant place in the life of the early church.

“But there is more that may be harder for us to accept. These chapters are about conversion, they are about a transformation that takes place across the life of the Church. Peter and the entire Jerusalem church are converted as a result of Peter’s vision and his visit to Cornelius’ home.”

This is why Luke emphasized this passage so strongly. He knew that in these moments in Caesarea, and later in Jerusalem, God had changed the Church.

Even after nearly two thousand years, I’m not sure the Church has entirely appreciated the change.

There is a theological doctrine known as complementarianism. In my ignorance, I’d not heard the word itself until recently, but I’d been aware of it through much of my life. I thought it was fading away.

Complementarianism sounds benign on its surface. It asserts that God created women and men for different, complementary, purposes. The assignment of physical sex creates a particular set of roles, one set for men, one set for women. I would guess some complementarians would see that some roles can be taken by either sex. I would also guess that some roles might appropriately change with time and culture.


Complementarians believe that authoritative roles belong pretty exclusively to men.

They also say that their view is well supported by the Bible, and I have to confess that they are right. Complementarians can find text after text that support the notion that men should have authority over women. Mind you, I can find Biblical texts that show women in authority over men, but there are far fewer of them. In a proof-texting competition, complementarians will win every time.

That shouldn’t surprise anyone. The Bible’s authors lived and breathed the cultures of their times, which were male-dominated. It’s what they believed. It’s what they wrote.

Yet they also wrote about a God of justice. They wrote about a God who took the side of the oppressed over the oppressors. They wrote about a God who would take the stone the builders rejected and make it the cornerstone.

They didn’t make the connection.

If God is a god of justice – and I believe that God is a god of justice – then God did not ordain half of the world’s population to rule over the other half by simple virtue of their sex. God did not strip authority from half to be dominated by the other half. God is not so cruel.

Complementarians, despite their advantages in the proof-texting competitions, are flat wrong.

Mitzi J. Smith writes, “But the only way we begin to put an end to making distinctions between ‘them’ and ‘us’ is to learn to recognize and admit our biases and their impact on human relationships. Racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, and other biased behaviors and thinking are not godly; they are motivated by fear of the other and not by love of humanity. ‘God shows no favoritism’ for one human being other another.”

We don’t get it yet, though, do we?

Karen Georgia Thompson again: “We often ask the question: who is missing? The deeper question is: who are we excluding and what are the mechanisms, tools, rituals, language, and behaviors that we employ to ensure that they receive the coded messages that indicate they are not welcome – that we have named them unclean?”

Who have we named unclean that God has declared clean?

In the news this week, there’s plenty. Under the President’s proposed changes to immigration laws, the unclean would be those who wish to become Americans and do not have the advantages of wealth and education. We will have to change the Emma Lazarus poem at the feet of the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Under the President’s proposal, these will be the unclean.

Emma Lazarus, by the way, was raised in wealth but descended from poor Jewish immigrants. She spent much of her adult life advocating for the detested refugees. She wrote “The New Colossus” in 1883, just a year after President Chester Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the United States’ first national immigration law.

We are on the verge of stepping back one hundred and thirty-seven years.

John C. Holbert writes: “Why can we not hear this amazing story? Why does it not inform daily our relationships with other religions, with people who are not like us? The answer to that is unfortunately simple: because we refuse to believe the fact that ‘God is no respecter of appearances.’

“When we deny the table to persons who are gay, we give the lie to this truth. When we refuse to allow gay persons to marry, we give the lie to this truth. When we refuse to ordain gay persons, we give the lie to this truth. Whenever we exclude anyone on the basis of ‘appearance,’ i.e. persons different in any way from us, we give the lie to this truth.”

Rev. Holbert, by the way, is a Methodist.

What God has declared clean is: everybody. Yes, everybody. Male, female, neither. Gay, straight, bi, trans, queer. Melanin rich or melanin poor. Rich or poor. With a criminal record or without. Raised on a continent or an island, or even, I suppose, continuously at sea. God has declared everyone clean.

It’s up to us to clean up our act, and welcome them as God’s people.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

What Has God Cleansed?

Is it identical to the prepared text? Well, no. You didn’t expect it would be, did you?

The image is an 1889 engraving of Emma Lazarus included in the collection of her poetry published that year. The engraving is credited to photographer W. Kurtz. Public Domain,

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , | Posted on May 19, 2019

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